“Bernice Bobs Her Hair” tracks the social climb of its titular protagonist—Bernice, a teenage girl from a wealthy family who proves to be awkward, old-fashioned, and unsocial among her peers. In 1920, when F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this story, teenagers had just come into their own as a distinct age group, with their own culture, values, and norms. For the first time in America, teenagers freely dated one another without adult supervision, and Fitzgerald saw how harshly teenagers judged each other’s worth by their success or failure in this arena. Through Bernice’s relationship to her cousin Marjorie, he explores the psychosocial effects of competing so viciously with one’s peers. With Marjorie’s help, Bernice rises to popularity—but she just as soon falls when Marjorie proves to be a competitor herself, and tricks Bernice into getting an unflattering bob haircut. Thus Bernice loses the attention of attractive young “stag” Warren McIntyre, but she also gains the confidence to strike back. Fitzgerald suggests that while competition seems inevitable in such a volatile social climate, its rewards lie not within the competition itself, but within the individual who rises above it.
Marjorie, a foil to Bernice, is shown to be clever and socially savvy, but also insensitive, shallow, and cruel. Investing herself wholly in social competition has made her incapable of healthy interpersonal relationships. She professedly has “no female intimates—she considered girls stupid.” Competing for boys’ attention has made her hostile to her own gender and age group. The best she can muster is praise or condemnation based on social clout: Martha Carey is “cheerful and awfully witty” by Marjorie’s estimation, and Roberta Dillon is “a marvellous dancer.” These qualities help a girl win attention and praise—and therefore, they win Marjorie’s respect. Little else seems to merit this response from her. Conversely, Marjorie dismisses her cousin’s worth as a person because Bernice is unpopular, with old-fashioned mores and poor fashion sense. To the notion that her flirtatious, frivolous ways will lead to a bad end, Marjorie simply responds that “All unpopular girls think that way.” For Marjorie, popularity seems to be a measure not just of someone’s credibility, but of their character.
This apathy to the thoughts and feelings of “unpopular girls” becomes outright antagonism towards anyone popular enough to compete with her socially. For years, Marjorie showed little overt interest in her childhood friend Warren McIntyre, who was always vying for her attention—but as soon as Bernice becomes his companion of choice, Marjorie goes out of her way to sabotage Bernice’s looks and win Warren for herself. Warren himself seems to matter little here; rather, Marjorie craves the social status his attention represents, and she is willing to hurt others to get it.
From the other side of this situation, Bernice experiences deep social anxiety as she fails to attract boys—and the more she invests in the race to do so, the more her mental state depends on it. At first, Bernice is caught between her old-fashioned principles and her desire for social validation, and the conflict is made all the worse by her lack of social grace. Out of nervousness, she mishandles Warren’s first attempt at flirting, feeling “a faint regret mingled with her relief as the subject changed.” When Marjorie later mocks Bernice for her social ineptitude, Bernice is reduced to tears and tantrums as she tries to justify her traditional feminine manners. She cannot engage this problem from either side without getting upset.
Even when Bernice follows Marjorie’s social coaching and wins many admirers, her emotions are still precariously balanced on whether she succeeds or fails in amusing her peers. She feels embarrassed when she makes a mistake—and when she succeeds, her mood reaches giddy, dizzying heights, such as when she falls asleep to fanciful thoughts of Warren. Neither state is healthy or sustainable. It is this insecurity that leads Bernice to accept Marjorie’s dare to bob her hair. Though “she had known [the haircut] would be ugly as sin,” Bernice fears losing her peers’ approval still more. Her investment in the social competition with Marjorie, too deep to retract gracefully, is what leads her to harm and shame.
Despite this, Bernice undeniably gains confidence and strength of character from learning how to navigate social situations, which Fitzgerald seems to suggest is a far richer reward than “winning” the social competition against Marjorie. Marjorie’s lessons form “the foundation of self-confidence” for Bernice. Once she learns how to be witty and well-liked, she can do it herself, without Marjorie’s explicit coaching. She doesn’t merely follow instructions, but she learns, and in learning she gains strength of character.
This newfound confidence serves her well, even when she is no longer popular. After the disastrous haircut, Bernice has the strength and forethought to return home in the dead of night, without seeking her aunt’s or her cousin’s approval—but not before snipping off Marjorie’s pigtails while she sleeps, and tossing them onto Warren’s porch with a laugh. Fitzgerald sets this final scene in direct contrast to Part III, in which Bernice cannot commit to her resolution to take a train home, crying when Marjorie reacts apathetically to her departure. Though she has lost her popularity and most of her hair, Bernice has clearly overcome the weaknesses that kept her so tightly chained to Marjorie’s social expectations, and Fitzgerald frames this as the greater victory.
Bernice’s journey from weakness to self-confidence, including the pitfalls along the way, shows how the young people of the 1920s faced peer-to-peer social competition unlike any generation prior. Through Marjorie, the story also shows just how toxic this competition can be, even if participation in it is mandatory. Ultimately, Bernice is better for both her victories and her losses because she grows from them internally, and she is happier for having left Marjorie’s social circle on her own terms. Fitzgerald clearly values this growth over the fleeting benefits of popularity itself, especially the fickle affections of cruel, shallow people like Marjorie and Warren.
Social Competition ThemeTracker
Social Competition Quotes in Bernice Bobs Her Hair
No matter how brilliant or beautiful a girl may be, the reputation of not being frequently cut in on makes her position at a dance unfortunate. Perhaps boys prefer her company to that of the butterflies with whom they dance a dozen times an evening, but youth in this jazz-nourished generation is temperamentally restless, and the idea of foxtrotting more than one full fox trot with the same girl is distasteful, not to say odious.
Warren fidgeted. Then with a sudden charitable impulse he decided to try part of his line on her. He turned and looked at her eyes.
“You’ve got an awfully kissable mouth,” he began quietly.
“Sarah Hopkins refers to Genevieve and Roberta and me as gardenia girls! I'll bet she'd give ten years of her life and her European education to be a gardenia girl and have three or four men in love with her and be cut in on every few feet at dances.”
“Girls like you are responsible for all the tiresome colorless marriages; all those ghastly inefficiencies that pass as feminine qualities. What a blow it must be when a man with imagination marries the beautiful bundle of clothes that he's been building ideals round, and finds that she's just a weak, whining, cowardly mass of affectations!”
“I hate dainty minds […] But a girl has to be dainty in person. If she looks like a million dollars she can talk about Russia, ping-pong, or the League of Nations and get away with it.”
“Do you believe in bobbed hair?” asked G. Reece in the same undertone.
“I think it’s unmoral,” affirmed Bernice gravely. “But, of course, you’ve either got to amuse people or feed ‘em or shock ‘em.”
But a few minutes before she fell asleep a rebellious thought was churning drowsily in her brain—after all, it was she who had done it. Marjorie, to be sure, had given her her conversation, but then Marjorie got much of her conversation out of things she read. Bernice had bought the red dress, though she had never valued it highly before Marjorie dug it out of her trunk—and her own voice had said the words, her own lips had smiled, her own feet had danced.
It was all she could do to keep from clutching her hair with both hands to protect it from the suddenly hostile world. Yet she did neither. Even the thought of her mother was no deterrent now. This was the test supreme of her sportsmanship; her right to walk unchallenged in the starry heaven of popular girls.